Classical / ROYAL PHILHARMONIC / ANDREW LITTON Barbican, London
Writer and broadcaster Edward Seckerson is Chief Classical Music and Opera Critic for The Independent. He wrote and presented the long-running BBC Radio 3 series Stage & Screen, in which he interviewed many of the most prominent writers and stars of musical theatre. He appears regularly on BBC Radio 3 and 4. On television, he has commentated a number of times at the Cardiff Singer of the World competition. He has published books on Mahler and the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, and has been on Gramophone Magazine's review panel for many years. Edward presented the 2007 series of the Radio 4 music quiz Counterpoint. He has interviewed everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Liza Minelli; from Paul McCartney to Pavarotti: from Julie Andrews to Jessye Norman.
Monday 12 June 1995
The seedy backroom bar of Bernstein's ballet Fancy Free was Litton's last port of call in a two-concert round-trip to the American heartlands. And as Bernstein's big-band kicked on, you could feel even this pitifully small audience giving silent thanks for the day that American music finally doffed its Stetson at Europe and went it alone.
So where did it all begin, this musical dream? Somewhere between the mountains and the plains of Oklahoma, if you are to believe Roy Harris. Now there was a pioneer. His family staked their claim in Lincoln County; they built a home and tilled the land there. And their hopes and aspirations found their way into a remarkable Symphony - Harris's Third. In one extraordinary passage, rustling arpeggios moves through muted strings, like a gentle breeze disturbing a field of corn, while bucolic woodwind figures amble. It's music content to stay where it is, as static as anything in Sibelius (whose one-movement 7th Symphony foreshadows it). But there is plenty yet to strive for. And in the final reckoning, as a determined dirge-like chorale in the strings comes through rocky brass syncopations to one of those all-this-could-be-yours perorations (replete with inspiring open- hearted horn descants), you know that American music could never be the same again. The date on the score is 1938.
I imagine that the Royal Philharmonic have rarely (if ever) played it. And they were, to put it mildly, feeling their way a bit. But better that than never to have ventured. And where there's a will. This was a hugely demanding (and enterprising) programme. But a good few people in that hall will have left a lot wiser as to what the words "American Dream" actually mean.
They will have certainly had some resonance for Jon Kimura Parker, staking his inexplicably slight UK reputation (despite winning the 1984 Leeds Piano Competition) on one of the most daunting virtuosic and unsung of all American pieces - the Barber Piano Concerto. Was this the last great romantic piano concerto? Truly it behaves that way. Barber took a set of traditional values - the showmanship of Rachmaninov, the finesse of Ravel, the percussive dynamism of Bartok and Prokofiev - and tightly bound them with that fabulously sinewy lyricism of his. Kimura Parker played a blinder of a performance, the kind that gets a piece return dates. And having wound up on the finale's pile-driving ostinatos, he invited us to chill out with a quick burst of Chick Corea. Got a match? No, that was the title.
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